Collecting Dots and Connecting Dots

As Jeff Stein notes over at the Washington Post, the declassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Christmas underpants bomber ought to sound awfully familiar to anyone who thumbed through the 9/11 Commission’s massive analysis of intelligence failures. Of the 14 points of failure identified by the Senate, one pertains to a failure of surveillance acquisition: the understandably vague claim that NSA “did not pursue potential collection opportunities,” which it’s impossible to really evaluate without more information. (Marc Ambinder tries to fill in some of the gaps at The Atlantic.)  The other 13 echo that old refrain: Lots of data points, nobody managing to connect them. Problems included myopic analysis—folks looking at Yemen focused on regionally-directed threats—sluggish information dissemination, misconfigured computers, and simple failure to act on information already in hand.

Yet you’ll notice that in the wake of such failures, the political response tends to be heavily weighted toward finding ways to collect more dots.  We hear calls for more surveillance cameras in our cities, more wiretapping with fewer restrictions, fancier scanners in the airport, fewer due process protections for captured suspects. Sometimes you’ll also see efforts to address the actual causes of intelligence failure, but they certainly don’t get the bulk of the attention.  And little wonder! Structural problems internal to intelligence or law enforcement agencies, or failures of coordination between them, are a dry, wonky, and often secret business. The solutions are complicated, distinctly unsexy, and (crucially) don’t usually lend themselves to direct legislative amelioration—especially when Congress has already rolled out the big new coordinating entities that were supposed to solve these problems last time around.

But demands for more power and more collection and more visible gee-whiz technology?  Well, those are simple. Those are things you can trumpet in a 700-word op-ed and brag about in press releases to your constituents. Those are things pundits and anchors can debate in without intimate knowledge of Miroesque DOJ org charts.  In short, we end up talking about the things that are easy to talk about.  We should not be under any illusions that this makes them good solutions to intel’s real problems. Hard as it is for pundits to sit silent or legislators to seem idle, sometimes the most vital reforms just don’t make for snazzy headlines.